The city of Qalat spreads out from the base of a 19th- century British hill fortress in central Zabul Province. It’s a poor city, but a busy one, with a sprawling bazaar and a maze of single-story shops. It’s also the provincial capital and host to two of the U.S.-led coalition’s forward operating bases, FOB Apache and FOB Smart.
The smaller of the two, FOB Smart, is home to the provincial reconstruction team, or PRT, for Zabul. The PRT is a joint civil-military unit. Its job is to help rebuild the structures of local government and civil society to the point where they can function on their own.
The Zabul PRT at FOB Smart has tackled a wide range of tasks, from organizing the Qalat fire department to helping farmers and co-ops obtain loans for agricultural supplies. But one of its top priorities is education. U.S. Air Force Col. Justin Kraft is the PRT’s commanding officer.
“The last stats I saw were about 1 in 10 males are able to read and write, and 1 in 100 females are able to read and write. So anything we can do to increase the education of the local populace, we view as a positive thing.”
The team was on just such a mission on April 6th, delivering textbooks to a school in Qalat, when an IED went off, killing six members of the team and several Afghan civilians. Among the dead was Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old Foreign Service Officer.
But the casualties also included three soldiers from Apache Troop, Fifth Squadron, Seventh Cavalry Regiment — Staff Sgt. Christopher Ward, Sgt. Delfin Santos Jr., and Cpl. Wilbel Robles Santa. The three were part of the PRT’s security detail.
First Lt. Thomas Giordano of 5-7 CAV was their platoon commander. He remembers Staff Sgt. Ward as a model non-commissioned officer.
“He was, just hit his six-year mark, just reenlisted at the beginning of the tour. Two-time Iraqi combat veteran. Acted as acting platoon sergeant, and then played a pivotal role in most of every mission planning and everything.”
Cpl. Robles had also just reenlisted.
“Robles was, is a father of two from Puerto Rico. He then joined the Army about 2½ years ago, and he’d been in my platoon since the beginning.”
Sgt. Santos was another Iraq War veteran, whose family had deep roots in the military, as his platoon mate Sgt. 1st Class Jacque Manuel recalls.
“Santos was one out of 17, youngest out of 17 children. His father was a World War II vet — a POW, in fact, in the Philippines. Two of his sisters were also in the Army.”
Santos enlisted the day his father passed away.
“He was originally a supply clerk, but then he transferred over to be a cavalry scout.”
The PRT will wrap up its operations in June, and FOB Smart will be handed over to the Afghan National Army. By all accounts, the ANA remains committed to fighting the Taliban but is battling chronic supply problems.
For now, Apache Troop has a job to do.
“It’s always hard losing guys, but you always honor those guys’ sacrifice by continuing the mission, pushing on. You know, that’s just how we carry on.”
The commanding officer of 5-7 CAV, Lt. Col. Christopher Jones, paid tribute to the fallen troopers at a memorial ceremony. “Their loss pains us,” he said, “and it is natural in our grief to ask, ‘Why them — why now.’ We can, however, draw some comfort in recognizing that their manner of passing was in many ways a testimony to their life. They stood for something. In serving the nation, in serving something greater than them, they entered harm’s way to make the world a better place.”
From Zabul Province, Andrew Schneider, KUHF News.
To view a timeline of Andrew Schneider’s month-long embed with troops stationed in Afghanistan, visit the Winding Down the War series page here.